Racial profiling is the stopping of individuals or suspected criminals based upon their race or skin color. Racial profiling involves the claim that police are detaining individuals in traffic enforcement simply because of their race or skin color. Often times the pretext for the stopping is the claim that the individual fits some profile of a person wanted for a crime. Or individuals are stopped in their car on the basis that they have committed a minor traffic infraction. Evidence that racial profiling exists began to appear in the media in the middle to late 1990s when newspapers revealed that the New Jersey State Police were using racial profiles to stop and detain motorists. Since then, statistics gathered in other areas, such as New York City, Denver, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, as well as other cities and states, demonstrate that people of color are disproportionally more likely to be stopped than are whites.
Those who point to profiling say that the issue raises important legal questions regarding racial discrimination. These issues may arise out of either the equal protection or due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. In fact, racial profiling is sometimes referred to as “driving while black.” The singling out of individuals solely based upon their race or skin color is unconstitutional. The statistics on who is stopped by the police is pointed to as evidence of either de jure or de facto discrimination. Others deny that the statistics reveal discrimination. Instead, these stops are not motivated by race but are simply a sign of aggressive policing and efforts to apprehend criminals. Police are thus stopping individuals on the basis of reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed, or that the person stopped is a criminal. In fact, in Brown v. City of Oneonta, 195 F.3d 111 (2nd Cir. 1999), a federal court ruled that in some cases race could be used as a reason to justify an investigatory stop.
While racial profiling has focused mostly on police stops, other statistics reveal that whites and people of color are treated very differently in the entire criminal justice system. This means that the initial stopping of people of color makes it more likely that they will face additional interaction with the criminal justice process. All of these instances could be considered examples of racial profiling.
For example, whites are more likely to be offered bail than people of color. Whites are much less likely to receive prison than people of color, and whites are much less likely to be prosecuted— and aggressively—for drug offenses than are people of color.
In the area of the death penalty, several studies have confirmed that whites are less likely to be placed on death row than people of color and that whites are much less likely to receive the prison sentence if they murder a person of color than if an African American murders a white person. For example, in 2000, 37 states, the military, and the U.S. government imposed the death penalty for a variety of crimes, with more than 40 percent of those on death row being African American. (African Americans are 12 percent of the population.)
From 1930 until 1993, 3,859 persons in the United States were executed. Of those, 2,066 were black. During this same time period, of 455 people executed for rape, 405 were black. From 1976 until 1993, 176 people in the United States have been executed. Of those, 40 percent were black. Even though whites and blacks are victims of homicide in about equal numbers, 80 percent of those sentenced to death and executed have been individuals who killed whites.
A 1990 Government Accounting Office (GAO) study entitled Death Penalty Sentencing concluded that “[t]hose who murdered whites were found to be more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks.” GAO and other studies by the American Bar Association, Congress, and the Death Penalty Information Center have found that those who murder whites are far more likely to be sentenced to death that those who murder blacks. Similarly, a 1994 House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights report indicated that prosecution of the 1988 federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act appears racially tainted. In general, of those prosecuted under the act, 75 percent have been white and 24 percent black. But in death penalty prosecutions, 78 percent have been black and 11 percent white. Overall, racial profiling or racial disparities exist on several levels in the criminal justice system, raising questions regarding the explanation and possible remedy for this differing treatment.
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